Interview: Fergus Ewing on the prospect of a no-deal brexit

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 14 February 2019 in Inside Politics

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy tells Liam Kirkaldy about the Scottish Government's plans for the UK leaving the EU without a deal

Image credit: Holyrood

Fergus Ewing has started stockpiling tinned tomatoes to prepare for the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, though he says it’s not the short-term effects of the UK leaving the EU without a deal that worry him most.

“It’s up to each individual to make their own judgement on these things,” he explains. “If you’re particularly partial to spaghetti bolognaise then you may want to go out and invest in some tins of tomatoes now. But I don’t think a temporary inconvenience is a real problem in life. It’s that it [a no-deal Brexit] would have long-term irreparable consequences. That’s why we are concerned.

“Temporary inconvenience of not having one food or another, we can live with that. Britain went through rationing after the Second World War. People survive – and we were a bit thinner back then, so there may be a potential upside, for people like me that could be encouraged to have fewer carbs, perhaps. But seriously, what we are concerned about is what we see as likely to be irreparable damage, to the economy and to people’s lives. Particularly small businesses. That’s what gets me, I was a small business person once. Why should these people be the victims of an act of recklessness by the UK Government? They shouldn’t.”

The last time Holyrood sat down with the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy, in the summer, the prospect of a no-deal Brexit was being treated as highly improbable. Theresa May was still deep in negotiations with the EU and, although it was still unclear what sort of shape the withdrawal agreement might take, there was a general consensus that some sort of deal, which could win support from both MPs and EU states, would exist by the end of the year.

In the time since, however, with Theresa May facing a series of humiliating defeats, the odds seem to have shifted. Put simply, the prospect of a no-deal exit from the EU is looking less and less outlandish.

As a result, the Scottish Government is increasingly worried, and preparations for no deal have stepped up. As Ewing puts it: “We hope for the best but we have to prepare for the worst.”

Ministers meet every Thursday through the Scottish Government’s resilience sub-committee, known as SGoR and chaired by the Deputy First Minister, while Ewing takes charge of a sub-group on food, made up of representatives from the sector. Businesses are making hasty preparations for food and medicine shortages, while the UK Government has been running simulations to test the stress put on food supplies in the event of no deal.

Yet a recent report from the Institute for Government was scathing. As its director put it: “The UK is not ready for no deal.”

Meanwhile, extreme weather brought by ‘the beast from the east’ last year highlighted how quickly transport disruption could lead to shortages in supermarkets – supplies lasted a matter of days – yet although the Scottish Government remains resolutely opposed to crashing out of the EU without a deal, concern continues to grow. To what extent can the Scottish Government mitigate the chaos caused by no deal?

Ewing tells Holyrood: “I think supermarkets have said fresh fruit and salad is unlikely to be available [in the event of no deal]. My understanding is that supermarkets and large retailers are doing an awful lot of work and that in fact, they have been stockpiling. I’ve seen commentary to the effect that such economic growth as there has been is attributable to stockpiling, which, if true, shows the scale of supermarket preparedness. But I think it was the Governor of the Bank of England that said there’s a limit to what you can do.

“And of course, no one knows, if there is a no deal, how long the damage could continue without some sort of practical arrangements being put into force. So I think mitigation is possible, to a certain extent, but not to a full extent, and it’s impossible to know how effective it is capable of being at this stage because so many of the risks are imponderable or unclear. All we can do is what we are doing, behave as a responsible government. Instead of spending our time looking at the issues of the day and taking things forward in a positive way, we’ve got to act defensively, reactively, to the Brexit no-deal issues. Myself and colleagues are having to spend – and we are not complaining about it – but we are having to divert our attention from other things that, arguably, we should be focusing on to drive forward the rural economy, for example. Instead we are having to deal with this threat to the rural economy, and it is a very frustrating situation. It has engulfed the UK Government. The whole of the UK Government is almost in a state of semi-stasis. Brexit is a virus which has steadily grown and infected all other areas of government activity.”

Michael Gove – Ewing’s opposite number in the UK Government – has expressed similar concern over the damage that could be done by a no-deal Brexit. Just last month, the UK Environment Secretary issued a warning over the severe disruption which it would likely cause for the UK’s farming and food industries, particularly for small farmers.

And although there are obvious political differences between the two administrations, working relations between the UK and Scottish governments, at least on a departmental level, have, typically been pretty good. Has the question of Brexit, and particularly the growing prospect of the UK leaving without a deal, strained relations?

“No, I don’t think so,” Ewing says. “I have been a minister for 12 years and there was only ever really one individual who I found it impossible to get on with – I’m afraid I won’t divulge that name – but I’ve dealt with 15 or 20 ministers on a regular basis.

“I have a cordial, workmanlike relationship with both Michael Gove and George Eustice [DEFRA minister], I will continue to have that – there’s no point in making silly ad hominem attacks on people. There are one or two politicians down south who make a living out of that and I don’t see where it gets them. I’m Fergus Ewing, as an individual, but I am really, ex-officio, the rural development voice for Scotland, so I have a responsibility to get on with people in a businesslike fashion, so I do, but I have to say the last meeting we had, last month, was tense. It wasn’t helped by the fact it started 14 minutes late, which I pointed out. But be that as it may, Michael Gove is an extremely courteous man. In fact, I have rarely met anyone so courteous, but that’s not the point. The point is action. It’s about delivery. And on that front, we are yet to see significant progress on many areas.”

The Scottish food and drink industry generates more than £14bn per year, while employing over 100,000 people – “on a par with oil and gas”, Ewing points out – and the sector is clearly worried. There are around 17,000 businesses in the sector, and more than 10,000 food and drink manufacturers. The majority are SMEs – providing knock-on economic benefits throughout the economy – and Ewing’s frustration is obvious.

“The bitter irony is that just at a time when Scotland’s food and drink sector is achieving greater success than ever before, it faces this enormous potential threat, particularly in respect of a no-deal Brexit.”

He adds: “The Scottish brand is appreciated, valued, cherished across the world and in many sectors the only constraint on further success is the capacity to produce, particularly smaller businesses who are exporting everything they can to markets in the US, Germany, Singapore and across the world, and many are achieving great things.

“You know, I did a press briefing in London a few months back, followed by a meeting with Michael Gove, and the message I gave then is now even more relevant. There’s no dubiety. Everyone, including Michael Gove, accepts that a no-deal Brexit would be punitive and catastrophic for some sectors. The point I was making was that the UK Government knows a no-deal Brexit would be catastrophic, possibly terminal, for many, many businesses, particularly small farms in the lamb sector. To allow such an option to stay on the table for purely political purposes, to me, is not just a mistake. Let’s face it, no government in the world is perfect, and will therefore make a mistake, usually through an error of judgement or a failure to appreciate the consequence of things. But this is a different category of government misdemeanor, this is not a mistake. This is recklessness.

“So my argument to Mr Gove was, look Michael, you yourself have admitted that the impact, for example, on Scottish lamb producers, where a huge proportion of our exports go to Europe, the tariffs they would face would probably mean the loss of these markets, leading to the collapse of the lamb price, leading to bankruptcy, leading to social problems of an enormous scale. How can you allow this option to remain on the table when you can take it off the table? You can take it off the table either by seeking an extension, which you can agree with the EU, or by revoking Article 50, but there’s no doubt that one or the other you can do. So my argument was that if you don’t take it off the table then the UK Government will, prima facie, face legal liability for all the losses that ensue. And of course, we know why they’re not taking it off the table, because the only conceivable way that Mrs May can get a deal approved by the House of Commons is to use the threat of no deal as a lever to encourage some MPs to vote for her deal. It’s a dangerous game and I think about the metaphor of the frying pan and the fire. Theresa May wants people to jump into her frying pan, and to encourage them to do that she is stoking up the fire, when she can put the fire out. So my message to Gove was, put the fire out, take it [threat of a no deal] off the table and remove this uncertainty. Every day that goes past makes these threats more real.

“My point to Mr Gove was a different one to normal. Not just, ‘we disagree with you, Michael’, but we both agree that the consequences would be catastrophic, why are you not taking the catastrophe off the table? Why are you stoking the fire? If you can’t get MPs to support a Brexit deal then frankly, that’s your problem. That’s the rest of the UK’s problem, that voted for Brexit. It’s not our problem. We’re not signed into this club where it’s our common duty to do a deal. It’s our common duty not to do a deal because the people of Scotland voted very substantially against it. I also suspect that opinion is hardening against a no-deal now.”

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